Elevate Difference

The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood

Psychiatrist, mother, and grandmother Barbara Almond's provocative new study makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate about what she terms “the dark side of motherhood.” The negative feelings a mother inevitably has toward her child, however loving she may be, and the painful conflicts these feelings can engender, is a topic still too often taboo in American culture.

In The Monster Within, Almond asserts, “Today's expectations for good mothering have become so hard to live with, the standards so draconian, that maternal ambivalence has increased and at the same time become more unacceptable to society as a whole.” This increasing idealization of mothering has provoked both a revolt by some contemporary mothers against these ideals and a shocked fascination on the part of the American public with the most spectacular cases of bad mothering, in which women abuse or even kill their children. Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who in 2001 drowned all five of her young children, is one of the murderous mothers whose situation Almond analyzes in her presentation of the wide spectrum of “maternal ambivalent feelings, thoughts, and behaviors,” from normal jitters to psychotic states.

In The Monster Within Almond uses two main kinds of evidence: clinical examples and case histories from her own and her colleagues' practices and discussions of selected literary works that she calls “case stories,” which range from the tragedy Medea by Euripides to Rosemary's Baby to Toni Morrison's Beloved. Those fictional accounts illustrate many of the same themes Almond finds in her therapeutic work, and they enable her to expand and deepen her examination of the mother-child bond. She also draws on articles in professional reviews, as well as newspapers and popular magazines, and on pioneering feminist critiques by Nancy Chodorov, Adrienne Rich, and others from the 1960s and '70s.

Almond's principal objective is to demonstrate the ubiquity and the multiple facets of maternal ambivalence and to suggest healthy ways for mothers and children to cope with their fraught relationship. Along the way, she takes on women's fears of producing monstrous offspring, tales of vampyric babies and mothers, various traumatic events that can disrupt mothering, and mothering across the life cycle, including becoming a grandmother and relating to adult children. The approach throughout is to relieve guilt and shame for negative experiences and to help mothers achieve happy motherhood and a good relation with their children, as well as helping the children themselves.

The Monster Within is a well-researched, well-written treatment of ambivalence, both its positive and its negative effects. I regret, however, that the text does not deal with the latest phenomenon of Mommy Bloggers, though I do not know how much new material Almond would have found there that is relevant to her concerns. Certainly many contemporary women are breaking their silence and dramatically confronting the issues she raises.

Mothers, prospective mothers, grown children, and anyone interested in the state of mothering at the present day will find much food for thought in this book. Interested readers would also be well advised to supplement The Monster Within with writings from the Journal of the Association for Research in Mothering, a publication devoted to exploring mothering from various radical perspectives through multidisciplinary approaches and creative writings. Almond's critique of the limiting expectations and flawed social constructions of mothering continues in a new journal from the same editors published by the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement.

Written by: Kittye Delle Robbins-Herring, January 2nd 2011